Rules, radical pragmatics and restrictions on regular polysemy

Hugh Rabagliati, Gary F. Marcus, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although regular polysemy [e.g. producer for product (John read Dickens) or container for contents (John drank the bottle)] has been extensively studied, there has been little work on why certain polysemy patterns are more acceptable than others. We take an empirical approach to the question, in particular evaluating an account based on rules against a gradient account of polysemy that is based on various radical pragmatic theories (Fauconnier 1985; Nunberg 1995). Under the gradient approach, possible senses become more acceptable as they become more closely related to a word's default meaning, and the apparent regularity of polysemy is an artefact of having many similarly structured concepts. Using methods for measuring conceptual structure drawn from cognitive psychology, Study 1 demonstrates that a variety of metrics along which possible senses can be related to a default meaning, including conceptual centrality, cue validity and similarity, are surprisingly poor predictors of whether shifts to those senses are acceptable. Instead, sense acceptability was better explained by rule-based approaches to polysemy (e.g. Copestake & Briscoe 1995). Study 2 replicated this finding using novel word meanings in which the relatedness of possible senses was varied. However, while individual word senses were better predicted by polysemy rules than conceptual metrics, our data suggested that rules (like producer for product) had themselves arisen to mark senses that, aggregated over many similar words, were particularly closely related.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)485-512
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Semantics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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